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BlackBerry PlayBook: Great Tablet, But Not Much to Play With
Once an industry darling, Research in Motion (RIM), the company that makes BlackBerry devices, has lately been navigating stormy seas. RIM’s market share has fallen in key markets like the US thanks to smartphones powered by a visibly aging OS and almost obsolete hardware specs when compared with other top-of-the-line competitors. The BlackBerry PlayBook is supposed to be RIM’s saviour, not only launching RIM into the red-hot tablet market, but also powered by the all-new QNX OS, as well as boasting of some great hardware specs. And not too far in the future QNX is also supposed to come to a whole new spiffy generation of BlackBerry smartphones.
It's finally here
The BlackBerry PlayBook launched in the US in April 2011 and today will be available in India. We’ve had a review unit of the PlayBook for a little over a week and here are our impressions on RIM’s big hope.
Businesslike. Tough, yet cool. In true BlackBerry tradition this baby featuring a 7-inch high-resolution 1024 x 600 WSVGA capacitive touchscreen with 4-finger multi-touch and gesture support looks business-chic. The display is brilliant even in bright sunlight. Seems a bit heavy for its size though at 425 gms, but once I started using it, I loved its feel in my hands. With a back that’s sort of rubberized (in a very nice way!), this thing is built tough and am confident could easily take a few nasty falls without a murmur.
Connectivity options along the edge of the Playbook
Our review unit came with 16GB of internal memory and 1GB RAM, but 32 and 64GB versions are available. There’s no support for microSD cards or SIM cards. The only buttons are located on the top of the device and considering the width of the PlayBook is just 10mm, the buttons are tiny, but adequate. One button switches the device on and off and the other three are volume control/scroll/media buttons. At the bottom the PlayBook has a microUSB slot for charging and tethering to a PC as well as an HDMI port that allows you to directly play movies or presentations on compatible displays, and a port for docking the PlayBook. On either side of the screen are high-quality stereo speakers. There’s a stereo microphone on the top left corner and a 3.5mm audio jack on the top right corner. The PlayBook comes with 2 cameras—a 3 MP 1080p HD ready forward-facing camera and a 5 MP 1080p HD ready rear-facing camera.
Unboxing the Blackberry Playbook
While the PlayBook is definitely more portable compared to 10-inch tablets like the iPad2, Moto Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10 or the upcoming HP TouchPad, it won’t exactly fit into your pocket. Granted, it slides into the back pockets of my jeans like the 7-inch Galaxy Tab (and the PlayBook’s so much slimmer), but it’s not a great feeling carrying it around and besides if you ever try it while travelling in public transport you can say goodbye to your tablet faster than you can say PlayBook. But when you’re travelling cattle class on a packed flight, it’s definitely more usable as compared to its 10-inch brethren.
Features and Performance
QNX, or what is now officially called the BlackBerry Tablet OS boasts of symmetric multiprocessing capabilities and is an admirable piece of software—definitely an industrial strength piece of work that didn’t crash on me even once. Now, though some among the RIM faithful like to point out that QNX is also used in nuclear power plants, high-end routers, etc. do keep in mind that what’s running on your tablet may not have much in common with the QNX software powering a nuclear power plant except for a few lines of code. It's a bit like Fiat Palio fanatics who used to claim that because Fiat also owns Ferrari, the Palio had some characteristics of a Ferrari. Yeah right! RIM is also constantly tinkering with the OS — in the week or so we had the device, we received two OTA OS updates.
Neatly laid out home screen
When you add a 1GHz dual-core Cortex-A9 CPU to the mix, the result is blazing performance. So, you have jaw-dropping multitasking capabilities where you can have an HD video, the web browser or games and more open and scroll between all these windows and have the feature you click on start playing instantly. Eg, you can have a video from the PlayBook playing on your TV through an HDMI cable while you surf the Net. Whether this is really practical (you’d need a long cable indeed!) and whether anyone really wants to do this in the real world is a question RIM fails to answer.
Touch controls are on the margins of the bezel and with a finger swipe you can switch between apps/windows as well as activate menus. A swipe from bezel to bezel gets the device started when it’s in sleep mode. Vertical finger swipes (bottom to top) can minimize and close open apps/windows. A downward finger swipe from the top right corner brings up the system menu. Open apps appear as a series of smaller windows on the top half of the screen, and you can scroll though them. I liked that part. If you’ve used the Palm Pre which ran webOS, some aspects of the PlayBook’s UI might induce déjà vu.
Very limited applications on the new platform
The bottom of the screen holds icons such as ‘All,’ ‘Media,’ ‘Games’ and ‘Favorites,’ besides ‘Bridge’ when using BlackBerry Bridge. A few minutes is all it took to get used to the swipes needed for navigation on the device. Although not as intuitive as the iPad, this one’s pretty darn close. The keyboard’s nice enough but one minor issue is that the gyroscope seems to often have a mind of its own. Speed of reorientation can be annoying and often you need to give it a thorough shake to get the screen into the correct position. I couldn’t do without the orientation lock.
The browser is perhaps the best RIM has built to date and is full-featured with full Adobe Flash 10.3 enabled. With built-in support for HTML 5, this is almost as good as a standard desktop browser and this is a strong advantage the PlayBook possesses. I had absolutely no problems with Flash-enabled sites and the browser rendered text, graphics and video very well. I didn't miss browsing on a PC when I used the PlayBook to browse the web.
Another strong point for the PlayBook is that the tablet in true BlackBerry tradition handles most media formats very well. The speakers are excellent and deliver good music reproduction and HD-capable video playback is superb too. I enjoyed watching movies and TV shows on the PlayBook which supports H.264, MPEG4, WMV video formats even in HD. You also don’t need to convert videos since it supports DivX and XviD formats. And as mentioned earlier, you can use an HDMI cable to connect the PlayBook to your HDTV and view videos. Of course you’ll need a micro-standard type cable which is not included with the sales package.
Decent image quality from the camera
The 5 MP autofocus camera on the rear is a winner and delivered great pictures, even in fairly low light. The large screen is nice to use as a viewfinder because you know exactly what the snap will capture. Ditto with video recording in full HD i.e. 1080p.
Apps spoil the fairy tale
This is where the story goes sour. The PlayBook comes bundled with a decent set of tools for the average business user. The full version of Documents to Go, a product built by DataViz, a company RIM acquired, comes with the PlayBook. There’s Word To Go, Sheet To Go and Slideshow To Go and these are quite good, though there could be compatibility issues with complicated presentations or documents with macros. Plus there’s Adobe Reader. The unit we received also came with a few Indian apps such as Zomato, Vogue and a Tarla Dalal cookery app. There’s also a nice video chat application that leverages the dual cameras, but you need another PlayBook user in order to chat.
But peek into BlackBerry App World and unlike competing app stores where you can spend days browsing through what’s on offer, the BlackBerry PlayBook’s app cupboard is threadbare and visibly empty, especially on the consumer apps front—the enterprise apps offerings do better in comparison. Unlike the iPad which can run almost all the hundreds of thousands of iPhone apps, existing BlackBerry apps won’t run on the PlayBook since QNX is an all-new OS. Ouch. And there’s no native e-mail client, calendar or independent BlackBerry Messenger either, but more on that later.
A very colourful Weather application
What’s on offer is often quite poor too. I downloaded a few apps for kids and was appalled at the quality and UI. Some of them seem to have been built by kids as part of school projects. Okay, I'm kidding. Truth is, am sure even school projects see better quality of work. This is one area that RIM desperately needs to work much harder on—the problem is, I’m sure RIM is working as hard as it can to fix this issue, but app ecosystems take time. Closer to home we do know that RIM is working closely with Indian app developers and is very aggressively wooing them. At last count I believe RIM had over 20,000 Indian developers building apps and thousands more are being added almost every month. Some of this will show in the 100-odd apps from India that would be available for the PlayBook at launch. But the fact is, they need tens of thousands more to be relevant in an era where apps is what it takes to succeed.
One way RIM wants to solve this tough problem is a plan to release emulators that will allow the PlayBook to run Android apps. And of course BlackBerry apps. However, while RIM initially said this feature would come out in a few months, latest reports seem to suggest a delay of a few more months. Also, though RIM executives say they will ensure a high-level of performance even for Android apps (which won’t be accessing the OS layer, but only a layer built above the OS), one needs to wait and see if they can actually deliver on this promise.
Easy to access settings menu
Though native e-mail, calendar and memo apps are not available, if you are a BlackBerry smartphone user you can simply use BlackBerry Bridge to tether your smartphone to the PlayBook and you’ll be able to access your e-mail, calendar, BlackBerry Messenger, memos and even browse in the absence of Wi-Fi connectivity using the Bridge browser. The process to connect to Bridge is simple and though I wasn’t a great fan — I prefer the keypad on my BlackBerry smartphone--CIOs should be delighted because Bridge ensures that no data resides on the PlayBook. The minute the Bridge connection is broken, the cache on the PlayBook is cleared and the Bridge menu simply disappears. Another reason CIOs might prefer the lack of native e-mail apps is that since users need to check e-mail through the browser when not using Bridge, no data again resides on the tablet.
Connectivity & Battery
The currently available PlayBooks offer only Wi-Fi. GPS is also available. Future versions will offer 4G + WiMax; 4G + LTE and 4G + HSPA+ but these are months away from launch. Besides, India has just about started on the 3G journey and 4G is at least a year or two away. RIM claims you can also use your smartphone as a tethered modem with the PlayBook. I used my BlackBerry, but didn’t get 3G browsing speeds. But perhaps that’s because of Vodafone’s 3G network in Mumbai and not the PlayBook’s fault.
A very compatible 3.5mm audio jack
Battery life is good and was something RIM was working feverishly on till the day of launch in the US. I first saw and played around with the PlayBook way back in February at BlackBerry Devcon Asia and one question RIM kept refusing to answer back then was expected battery life. I got around 5.5 to 8 hours of battery life from the inbuilt Li-Po 5300 mAh battery with mixed use. Overall, this should easily be enough for a day’s worth of PlayBook use.
I have to admit that the PlayBook grew on me. In a line, it’s a great tablet with a lousy app store—it’s almost like RIM built a supercar but there’s hardly any road to drive it on. In many ways, because of that the PlayBook may remain a companion to the BlackBerry smartphone, at least for now. Which is sad because tablets are not supposed to be appendages to the smartphone.
Secondly, while you can do your basic work on the PlayBook, building a complex presentation from scratch or working on a complicated spreadsheet won’t be easy because of the small screen and touch input. So, the device like most tablets will be used more for content consumption rather than creation. And finally, since the PlayBook comes from the BlackBerry stable which is venerated for its enterprise capabilities, I have a feeling quite a few enterprises may take to it because CIOs would love the security aspects with features like BlackBerry Bridge.
There's the old BlackBerry Logo
On the other hand RIM also may have set up the foundation for a future winner here. Unlike Nokia which turned over and killed MeeGo, RIM has displayed the guts to innovate on its own and go for a whole new OS rather than merely adopt someone else’s.
Priced at Rs 27,990 for the 16GB version, Rs. 32,990 for the 32GB and Rs 37,990 for the 64GB one, the PlayBook doesn’t come cheap and considering the lack of app depth may be priced a tad too high. RIM is considered the coolest smartphone brand in India thanks to the peer-induced, addictive allure of BlackBerry Messenger and the fact that Apple doesn’t give a damn about the Indian market, and I know of many in India who want the latest BlackBerry as soon as it’s out of RIM’s gates. However tablets are not smartphones.
If you’re a BlackBerry power user or fanatic, you should try this one, but if you’re not, it might be a good idea to wait till RIM gets its apps act right, and especially that much-awaited silver bullet, the Android emulator. By then you may also have version 2 of the PlayBook.